December 10, 2012

John Boehner (Associated Press)

As the Republicans try to sort through how the “fiscal cliff” negotiation strategy and the aftermath if we go over it, there is no shortage of advice. Rather than substance (e.g. revenue or no revenue) here are five simple negotiation tips that could help the GOP keep its head above water.

First, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is right: Republicans should stop flapping their gums. On Fox News, he said, “I would be quiet for a while and see what the Democrats put on the table for entitlement reform.” There will be plenty of time give away stuff later on; Republicans however should stop doing it publicly now, thereby preserving what leverage Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) still has.

Second, at some point you do want the parties to talk quietly behind closed doors and not to the media. Yes transparency is great, but that is not the way complicated deals involving pain on both sides get done. Public meetings, interviews and press releases quickly devolve into posturing. That in turn makes it much harder to reach a deal. The president insists on going out into the country, but that is just one more sign he is aiming for political gain and not a negotiated compromise. Republicans should remind him that the only way a deal gets done is if he comes into the negotiating room ready to talk reality to his own side.

Third, don’t rush. That might seem odd advice since we are waiting on Dec. 10 for any sign of a deal in the offing. But I can tell you from a couple decades as a labor lawyer (which included difficult negotiations on tricky healthcare and pension issues) that when you hurry, you make mistakes. The sides miss one another, coming away with different understandings of what was agreed to.  If something takes time to refine the details or to get data not readily available, take the time and simply agree to agree, later.

Fourth, it isn’t necessary to fix every fiscal ill at once. Do what needs to be done and if necessary put off non-urgent matters not directly tied to an attainable deal. The immediate issue is extension of the Bush tax cuts and the sequestration. If a compromise can be reached ( e.g. raise $800 billion to $1.2 trillion by tax reform) or a swap worked out (e.g. revenue increase for the $1.2 trillion previously identified by VP Joe Biden and negotiators for both sides in the summer of 2011) do that. Considering the total lack of confidence by the markets and the public in politicians’ ability to strike some deal, a limited agreement is preferable to nothing because both sides are shooting for an unwieldy grand bargain. Likewise, in looking for a tax compromise or trade, the sequestration should not be ignored, especially on the national security side. Any deal should be made contingent on fixing the “devastating” cuts that the president assured us in the campaign could be resolved.

Fifth, remember the voices shouting the loudest for a pristine deal really don’t want any deal. They want a fight. And many have pecuniary interests in building fundraising and readership based on a sense of aggrievement. Keep that in mind before you are tempted to listen to them.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.